Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Greene’s Habit of Piety and Keller’s Prodigal God

I loved Graham Greene’s[1] The Power and the Glory (TPATG) almost without reservation. This was not the consensus of my reading group, however. We did agree that he was very good at periodic, sublime lyrical flourishes. Here are a couple examples:

“It was for these (children that the communist Lieutenant) was fighting. He would eliminate from their childhood everything which had made him miserable, all that was poor, superstitious and corrupt. They deserved nothing less than the truth - a vacant universe and a cooling world…He wanted to begin the world again with them, in a desert.” 58

“Perhaps when you’re my age you’ll know the heart’s an untrustworthy beast. The mind too, but it doesn’t talk about love. Love.” 199

“This (crowded jail cell) was very like the world: overcrowded with lust and crime and unhappy love, it stank to heaven; but he realized that after all it was possible to find peace there, when you knew for certain that the time was short.” 125

“How often had the priest heard the same confession[2] Man was so limited he hadn’t even the ingenuity to invent anew vice…It was for this world that Christ had died; the more evil you saw and heard about you, the greater glory lay around the death. It was too easy to die for what was good or beautiful, for home or children or a civilization – it needed a God to die for the half hearted and the corrupt.” 97[3]

The charge my friends brought against him, however, was that these flourishes seldom went anywhere substantive. We concluded that this was far from incidental. While, say, Flaubert crafted descriptions that resolved into a grand insights of vast generality, Greene consistently resisted this tendency. He seemed to be exploring human hearts rather than ‘the human heart’ which he found not only difficult to generalize between characters, but had no real consistency within characters. [4]

Regardless of Greene’s position on the fuzzy gradient that is mod-post-mod continuum, several intriguing themes emerged from The Power and The Glory. Greene was clearly haunted by the Catholic doctrine of ex opre operoto.[5] He also has far too much fun leading us into the ambiguous, overlapping territory of courage and duty (potentially antagonistic impulses manifesting similar symptoms).[6] But, by far, the most intriguing theme, from my perspective, was ‘the habit of piety.’



The Habit of Piety
We were first introduced to ‘the habit of piety’ when the courageous but morally weak protagonist, the whisky priest, found himself in a jail cell surrounded by thieves, murderers, and a woman incarcerated for religious observance. Himself an unholy amalgam of hedonist and moralist he saw the reflection of his own heart in both incarcerated types: the criminal and the religious. The surprising thing in this moment was that both reflections were troubling to him. Actually, the religious reflection was the more troubling of the two:

“It was more difficult to feel pity for (the religious woman in the jail cell) than for the half-cast (his betrayer)…but her case might be worse. The others had so much excuse – poverty and fever and innumerable humiliations.” 131

“Again he was touched by an extraordinary affection. He was just one criminal among a herd of criminals…he had a sense of companionship which he had never experienced in the old days when pious people came kissing his black cotton glove.” 128
Later he reflected on this paradox:

“The brandy was musty on the tongue with his own corruption. God might forgive cowardice and passion, but was it possible to forgive the habit of piety? He remembered the woman in the prison and how impossible it had been to shake her complacency. It seemed to him that he was another of the same kind. He drank the brandy down like damnation: men like the half-caste could be saved, salvation could strike like lightning at the evil heart, but the habit of piety excluded everything but the evening prayer and the Guild meeting and the feel of humble lips on your gloved hand.” 169[8]

The realization that his humiliation had bought him was that religion is just a refined brand of hedonism. Becoming habituated to the magnificence and wonder of the gospel is the most irrevocable form of lostness.[9]

Keller and the Prodigal God


I located the passages in TPATG that dealt with ‘the habit of piety’ relatively easily after I was done with the book…because next to each of them I had scrawled the word ‘Keller’. These passages dramatically illustrate the very idea that Tim Keller argues is at the heart of the message of Jesus and, in particular, the story of the prodigal sons.
In his neo-classic work on Luke 15,[10] Prodigal God, Keller argues that Jesus presents two possible ways to run from God: hedonism and moralism. And, in the parable’s shocking twist ending, Jesus reveals that it is the moralist (the older brother) who is actually in the more desperate state[11]:

“The lover of prostitutes is saved, but the man of moral rectitude is still lost…the younger brother knew he was alienated from the father, but the elder brother did not. That’s why elder-brother lostness is so dangerous…Everyone knows that the Christian gospel calls us away from the licentiousness of younger brotherness, but few realize that it also condemns moralistic elder brotherness…When you realize that the antidote to being bad is not just being good you are on the brink (of the gospel).”[12]

This is the startling uniqueness of the gospel. It is not a program of moral reclamation. It is not a method to turn bad people into good people. It is not the transformation of reckless hedonists into intolerable, self righteous prudes. It is a unilateral acquittal that seduces us into better passions. It is a prodigal (recklessly extravagant) affection that subversively supplants our self destructive loyalties to self interested masters. Greene’s work has such resonance because to claim Christ is to be a ‘whisky priest’: a tired, helpless, moral failure, whose rare heroism oozes with mixed motives, but whose passions are rehabilitated by God’s prodigal love in the midst of our lostness.

This post was written while listening to Vheissu by Thrice
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[1] Green is best known for The Quiet American which was made into a descent film with Michael Cane. In the middle of his career he wrote three novels that have come to be known as his ‘Catholic period’ after his surprising conversion. The Power and the Glory is one of these and is set in an oppressive, violent, anti-religious communist state in Central America. It is a novel with a tactile sense of place since Green spent an extended period in a similar communist state researching a non-fiction expose on religious persecution.
[2] Later: “He would sit in the confessional and hear the complicated dirty ingenuities which God’s image had thought out.” 101
[3] I could go on and on. Here are a few more: “That is the fallacy of the death-bed repentance – penitence was the fruit of long training and discipline: fear wasn’t enough.” 118
“She dressed up her fear, so that she could look at it – in the form of fever, rats, unemployment. The real thing was taboo – death coming nearer every year…” 33
“Why, after all, should we expect God to punish the innocent with more life?” 155
“No, but as I was saying – life has such irony. It was my painful duty to watch the priest who gave me (my first) communion shot – an old man. I’m not ashamed to say that I wept. The comfort is that he is probably a saint and he prays for us. It is not everyone who earns a saint’s prayers.” 113
“His conscience began automatically to work: it was a slot machine into which any coin could be fitted, even a cheater’s blank disk.” (On being manipulated through his conscience.) 89
“every small surrender had to be paid for in a further endurance” 83

[4] I speculated that it is the difference between the quintessential modern (Flaubert is considered father of Realism) and a child of postmodernism. We also speculated that Dan preferred Flaubert and I preferred Greene because Dan is more of a modern and I am more formed by the latter perspective.
[5] Literally ‘the work works.’ This idea emerged from the Donatist controversy in North Africa. The question was, do sacraments administered by heretic or morally compromised priests ‘count’. The church decided, ‘yes.’ This is the sublime madness he is playing with when the whisky priest argues with the communist Lieutenant “I can put God into a man’s mouth just the same – and I can give him God’s pardon. It wouldn’t make any difference to that if every priest in the Church was like me” or in the torment of the married Father Jose “But then he remembered the gift he had been given which no one could take away. That was what made him worthy of damnation – the power he still had of turning the wafer into the flesh and blood of God. He was a sacrilege.” Greene seems to argue that this is the advantage of Christianity over communism. The later requires extraordinarily righteous and uncompromisingly selfless leaders to ‘succeeded’ while the Church’ success is independent of the moral quality of its leadership. (I couldn’t help wanting to mail this book to all of my Catholic friends as I feel it speaks peace to their movement in the midst of the horror of the abuse scandal they are broken-heartedly weathering).
[6] “Renounce your faith…It is impossible. There’s no way. I’m a priest. It’s out of my power.” 40[8] Green goes back to this well again and again. In at least two places (p 79 and 129) he suggests that there are worse things to be than thieves or murderers…and that a bad priest would be one of them. Then there is this nearly comical confessional exchange that begins to unpack the distinction between religion and gospel:
Why don’t you confess properly to me? I’m not interested in your fish supply or in how sleepy you are at night…remember your real sins.”
“But I’m a good woman, father,’ she squeaked with astonishment.
‘Then what are you doing here, keeping away the bad people?” He said, “Have you any love for anyone but yourself?”
“I love God father,” she said haughtily. He took a quick look at her in the light of the candle burning on the floor – the hard old raisin eyes under the black shawl – another of the pious – like himself.
‘How do you know? Loving God isn’t any different from loving a man – or a child. It’s wanting to be with Him, to be near Him.’ He made a hopeless gesture with his hands, ‘It is wanting to protect him from yourself.” 173
[9] “That was another mystery: it sometimes seemed to him that venial sins – impatience, and unimportant lie, pride, a neglected opportunity – cut you off from grace more completely than the worst sin of all. Then, in all his innocence, he had felt no love for anyone; now in his corruption he had learnt…” 139[10] In some ways, Keller is the bizarro-Lewis (who often held that he was a far better writer than speaker). He may be the best Christian orator of our day which makes his writing disappointing in comparison despite its exceptionally high quality.
[11] I unpack how these themes are also the themes of the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in my talk on Luke 18.
[12] But the response to moralism and hedonism is not just a vauge spiritualism but a dynamic Christocentric, gospel informed, communal Christianity. Keller frames this thus: “As a result (of the large populations of moralists in the church), a high percentage of people want to achieve spiritual growth without loosing their independence to a church…yet staying away from (church) simply because they have elder brothers is just another form of self righteousness.”

1 comment:

JMBower said...

fantastic post as usual. On a mostly unrelated note, I still can't read/hear Greene's name without thinking about "Our Man in Havana", and stifling a laugh. Especially when that leads to the mental picture of Alec Guinness in the movie version.

(jedi mind trick gesture) These are not the vacuum cleaners you're looking for...